Monday, October 19, 2009

Collision on Gitanga Road (and the rest of Nairobi)

As I walked out of the house to the concluding and relatively discomforting days of Nairobi's warm season, there seemed to be a heavy, unidentifiable tension in the air: Gitanga Rd was alarmingly quieter than the usual jungle of matatu horns, public service vehicle exhausts and herds of wananchi (citizens) stampeding from Argwings to Bishop Rd.

As I continued on a few steps past our gate, this atypical silence was quickly sliced into pieces by a hacking sound very foreign to that of the usual tree-bird kisses. A few steps later, the source of intrusion became apparent… A gang of men -- dressed in black and blue 3 button suits and double windsored ties -- were slamming long metal poles into wooden kiosks along the side of the road, destroying the small businesses that served as life support for about 20 struggling women in the community, while the men's colleagues carefully placed the women's bananas, tomatoes, eggs and other products into their freshly cleaned, white sedans.

As I got closer, a man standing safely across the street informed me that the men were from the City Council, the local governing body that controls the majority of life in Nairobi . Even more overwhelmed and confused, I asked what the women had done wrong, only to learn that my new friend was equally as perplexed. None of the wananchi seemed to know, resorting to white flag explanations of lost hope such as That's just how the City Council is

Three hours later, after returning from my meeting, I had the chance to speak with the women who had sold me 10 eggs and 6 bananas just days before. In a broken voice, one of them (Susan) told me that the City Council claimed their group didn't have a license and was a nuisance to the residents in the area. She said that they hadn't received any notice, and that this wasn’t the first time this had happened: Over a year ago, they women had much bigger kiosks, and the City Council tore them down, saying that they would only be allowed to have small kiosks that sat on the ground. Humbly, the women obliged, only to be betrayed a year later by the same poles and sedans that had destroyed their kiosks and whisked away their produce.

The secretary of the women's group shared with me a flyer for the society that they had formed (the Kilimani Juakali Sacco Society Ltd.), and confessed complete confusion about what the Council desired them to do moving forward. To stop selling completely wasn't an option -- their families depend on the income they bring home -- but they also knew there was nowhere else to sell, and that it was nearly impossible to get a license. They had tried numerous times before. Feeling completely useless, I asked if they could share with me their contact at the City Council, so that, if nothing else, I could at least understand this incomprehensible, paradoxical, and seemingly hopeless situation.

A few days later, during a meeting with Jae Talam, a senior inspector with 17 years experience at the City Council, I was told bluntly that the organization only issues licenses for kiosks to individuals they deem fit to run a business (i.e., their friends). After admitting the undeniable subjectivity in this process, she went on to say that even when they are granted, the licenses are very conditional: if a single neighbor calls to complain then the kiosk are shut down. Businesses that operate in permanent buildings are the only enterprises awarded the luxury of a demolition-proof license.

When asked about the assurance the women had been promised last year regarding the smaller kiosks, Jane pointed to the new Town Clerk, who was recently appointed (not voted in) and had changed many of the policies and by-laws. She then quietly shook her head, indicating that it was very unlikely that the women had been notified of these changes.

No longer able to control my disbelief -- or to diplomatically position accusations as objective, open ended questions -- I confessed to Jane that I couldn't understand how the single governing local authority in Nairobi could justify the complete discouragement of the majority of the city's population (i.e., the poor) from engaging in market place transactions, while also seemingly exploiting them for the inventory of the council members' own cupboards and wallets. The story just didn't add up…

Embarrassingly, Jane confessed that the City Council was indeed failing in their efforts to engage the poor and that more needed be done. She discussed a strategy to allocate an open space (similar to the Maasai Market) where women could sell their goods, but admitted that it would not be nearly enough real estate and would provide high transportation costs for the women.

Not in the least bit encouraged by this strategy, and overwhelmingly confused and defeated by the rest of the meeting, I thanked Jane for her time and retreated to the exit. As I nearly crawled through the gloomy hall, I looked through a muggy window and noticed an enormous room, filled with a department store of clothes, bordered with a school of desks and chairs, and decorated with a museum of art pieces. All collections of the Nairobi City Council.


  1. Thanks brother.

    It really is unexplainable, and screams at the need for public policy that enables (not destroys) an entrepreneurial environment that empowers the base of the pyramid.

    On the other hand, it also points to the importance of the private sector, and to solutions that are discovered and implemented outside of the government walls. Just today I read a story about a new mobile and online service in Kenya that allows local farmers to post their produce online via SMS or the Internet, gaining access to buyers nationally and even globally, without needing licenses, real estate, government supervision, etc. (Think an international Craigslists, exclusively for agricultural products, accessed through cell phones).

    Despite all the complications and confusion in the government, these are the stories that give me hope. 'A star amongst the darkness.'

  2. I still dont understand why they had to destroy the womens kiosks?

  3. Me neither!

    I believe they destroyed them under the guise that the women don't have licenses. But the problem is, getting a license for a kiosk is nearly impossible, and even if you do, the license is subject to the complaints of residents (i.e., the City Council's impulses).

    The idea of profiting from the women's losses is also a strong possibility?